On the shelf
By Susan Orleans
Avid Reader: 288 pages, $ 28
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As a reporter, Susan Orlean doesn’t have her love for animals on her sleeve. Who could afford to be overly clingy in this cruel world? Baby tigers can be obtained online, the northern white rhinoceros has been exterminated, and a rabbit plague once wiped out 140 million hares in China. Orlean balances these harsh truths with deep affection in On Animals, a sociable collection of her texts from the past two decades for the New Yorker, Atlantic and other media about all kinds of animals.
Whatever divides us as readers and writers, the animal-human bond is one of the few relationships that is sacred to most of us. Throughout the collection, Orlean meets some of the most loyal: an epidemiologist goes to great lengths to track down her abducted dog; a Moroccan veterinary clinic treats every animal that comes to the door free of charge, including pack animals. Sometimes awe leads to folly. In “Where’s Willy?” Via the famous orca (real name: Keiko) from the 90s film “Free Willy”, Orlean captures the absurd stunts that people perform to satisfy their idea of animal freedom. Apart from the absurdity, the beautiful ending cannot be denied: Keiko swims with his brothers and dives back into the wild waters off Iceland. (Keyword Michael Jackson score.)
The part of Orlean that led her pet-shy mother to adopt a dog as a child is never too far away from the scrutinizing reporter. “On Animals” is complemented by two diary-like essays presented in good faith by the author’s animal lovers. She wrote a book about 1950s canine star, Rin Tin Tin, and long ran a poultry-focused menagerie in the Hudson Valley. (And while it goes unmentioned, who can forget your request for cuddles from their cat Leo, their “drunken comforting animal” on Twitter last year?)
Orleans’ skillful handling of facts and her lived experience as an animal wimp create a pleasant friction. It turns out that Orlean, the pet owner, is sentimental – supposedly a reporter’s curse – until reality intervenes. When one of her domestic chickens is picked up by a predator for the first time, she reports crying for hours. The fifth time, “I sighed deeply and went out and bought a new chicken.”
We need this romantic-realistic hybrid to accompany us on this literary safari that doubles as a travelogue. A partial list of locations: the panda forests of China, an affluent suburb of Atlanta, the Cuban ox cultivation, a taxidermy championship in Springfield, Illinois, the steppes of South Africa full of frolicking lion cubs. In Orleans hands no place of the imagination gives itself to “nature”. She is a witness with clear eyes how “almost all ‘wild’ areas are cultivated in one way or another and, especially in South Africa, everything is fenced off and all animal populations are measured”.
Interestingly, it is Los Angeles, of all places, where she is moving in 2011 that impresses her with a multitude of free-range animals. In addition to hawks, coyotes and bobcats, Orlean is also enthusiastic about one of the city’s most famous residents: “That first winter, the lion named P-22 took a break from managing his busy social media accounts and set up camp in the crawl space a house not far from us. … We were in America’s second largest city and still felt like we were in a natural history diorama. “
(Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster)
The animal kingdom may be as narrow-minded as we are, but it is also “strange, unrecognizable, familiar, but mysterious”. Orlean acknowledges the secret but does not research it. Instead, she relies on her power of observation, which is imparted with unwavering curiosity. Their rich storytelling is almost comforting, even when it comes to something as disturbing as South African hunting facilities that sedate animals so they can be more easily shot. Sometimes I wish I had more understanding of this unrecognizability – and perhaps our reluctance to view ourselves as two-legged animals – but philosophical brooding is not included on this tour. Orlean’s mission is to examine the dizzying variety of roles animals fulfill – employee, best friend, harbinger of climate change – and the places where those functions intersect.
One of the best essays to explore that blurry middle ground is “The Lady and the Tigers” from 2002. When a tiger strolls through Jackson, NJ, two entities are blamed for the refugee – a local Six Flags and the allowed private surgery known as the Tigers Only Preservation Society, led by the reclusive Joan Byron-Marasek. She claims the big cat is not hers, but the publicity of the case exposes her operation as an alleged facade for her illegal possession of more than a dozen tigers. As Orlean tracks the twists and turns of the legal case, she tracks Jackson’s evolution from a rural outpost to a full-blown suburb whose condo dwellers don’t want roaring, deer-chewing neighbors.
“On Animals” is best when all of Orlean’s strengths work together – and it is her worship of the lowest worker that makes it stand out the most. In “Where Donkeys Deliver” she marvels at the beasts that bring all kinds of supplies into the medina, the walled city in Fez, Morocco, whose narrow streets cannot accommodate cars or motorbikes. As she watches a donkey dragging six color televisions strapped to its back, she writes: “I only caught a glimpse of the animal’s face as it passed, but it was, like all donkey faces, extremely adorable and managed to To be cheerful and tired at the same time and … determined. “It doesn’t take long before she” falls in love “.
Later, a donkey seller tries to get Orlean to buy one at a market. She explains that she doesn’t live there so it would be impractical to buy, but he continues until a crowd forms around her. Most of us would try to get out of this situation as soon as possible, but Orlean only patiently explains her predicament. It is one of the few times that expediency seems to triumph over love, if only for a moment. Otherwise, like the rest of us, Orlean is dedicated to creatures that are pushy, drooling, aloof, or just mortal when we don’t want to. As she writes in her last essay on a family death, “Although dogs break your heart, they fill it up when they’re gone.” Orlean still thinks about that donkey. She could make the jump next time.